Wednesday, 5 February 2014

I’ve decided to skip all coverage of the First World War centenary until Remembrance Sunday

Judging by how much there’s already been about World War One on television and radio this year, I have a horrible feeling that the BBC’s seemingly obsessional coverage - much like the war itself - is going to going to go down in history as an example of massive overkill. As tales of military heroism and self-sacrifice invariably make me blub (for some odd reason, I mist up at the very mention of Passchendaele), as both my parents served in the last war, and as films, books and poetry about WWI have been a mainstay of my cultural life, I'd better explain why I won’t be eagerly checking the schedules for programmes about the Somme or early tank warfare or what was happening on the home front for the next eleven months.

This conflict fascinates people who aren’t normally that interested in war, and who tend to view military heroics as either futile or positively wicked – i.e. the sort of people who vigorously opposed the Iraq War and who wouldn’t dream of attending Remembrance Day ceremonies or of welcoming British troops back from Afghanistan. I presume that liberal-leftists zero in on WWI because they believe it shows the military authorities in a bad light (lions led by donkeys); they assume working class soldiers suffered disproportionately compared to their blond, floppy-haired officers; that – like recent conflicts involving the British Army – it could have been avoided if only Herman van Rompuy had been there to get everyone around a table to hammer out an agreement; that  the government allowed millions of Britons to be slaughtered just to keep the Empire going for a few more years; and that it caused the rise of Hitler because of the vengeful, uncompassionate, mean-spirited harshness of the Treaty of Versailles.

Or maybe it’s because their view of the war was shaped by reading powerful anti-war poetry written by sensitive young upper-class men understandably appalled by their experiences in the trenches. Then again, perhaps they  thrilled in their youth to Richard Attenborough’s Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), in which practically every myth concerning the First World War is approvingly paraded in a sneery, facetious fashion. Undoubtedly, Britain’s cultural elite long ago decided that every aspect of WWI was indefensible – in fact it’s surprising that poems such as Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen” (“We shall not grow old as they that are left grow old”) and John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” (“In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row”) remain the best-know poems written between 1914 and 1918.

Surprisingly, perhaps, Dan Snow has written an excellent refutation of all the standard WWI myths for BBC Online (here). I hope everyone involved in producing programmes about the war this year has been sent a copy with instructions to read, learn and inwardly digest before further entrenching any of these misconceptions. (Young Snow deserves a mention in despatches.)

I’m also slightly worried that other wars or military actions involving British forces may be getting overlooked by the media because they don’t fit the usual left-liberal template. It’s true that a relatively small British force – 100,000 – was involved in the Korean War (1950-53), but it was enormously important and yet barely gets a mention, perhaps because a quick glance at modern-day North Korea suggests that war-mongering Americans and their British lap-dogs did the right thing in saving South Korea from murderous communists. We hear an awful lot about the humiliation resulting from Suez (which, again, fits the left-liberal view of government ineptitude and nostalgia for  Empire) but the role of British and Commonwealth troops in eventually crushing the communist insurgency in Malaya, which ended in 1960, is barely mentioned. (The defeat of the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya gets more publicity, one presumes because it’s easier to characterise it as racist and colonialist in intent – hell, we’re now even apologising to the terrorists!)

Historian Tim Stanley has weighed in on this issue on today’s Telegraph website (here):
I'm still not entirely sure what we're commemorating about the First World War and why. Obviously, we should always remember and honour our nation's war dead – as we do every November. But why – as a nation – pick through every battle, every fact, every detail, every controversy and turn it into a parade? What relevance does it all have to us now? And why is it so often rated as more important than the American War of Independence, the English Civil War or the Scramble for Africa? Will it overshadow the anniversary of Waterloo next year…”
Well said.

This whole brouhaha was started last month by the Education Secretary Michael Gove, who publicly objected to British schoolchildren being presented with what he called the “Blackadder” view of the war as a “misbegotten shambles”. (What a relief to have a Tory cabinet member able to think for himself, and willing to express those thoughts publicly: no wonder the Left hates him.)

I’m not sure when I started wearying of the media's WWI obsession. Probably when anti-war liberals pounced triumphantly on the statement by Britain’s last surviving tommy, Harry Patch, to the effect that war was “a licence to go out and murder”. The fuss made of the man solely due to his longevity struck me as sentimental, especially as media lefties don’t seem quite so keen on celebrating those currently serving in the armed forces  (unless, of course, they can be presented as victims). I wondered whether they’d have been quite so fond of Harry Patch if he’d told us that the only good Hun was a dead 'un.

I’ll leave the last word to Michael Deacon, who, contemplating the tsunami of First World War coverage about to be unleashed on Britain by the BBC, remarked: “Don’t worry – it’ll all be over by Christmas”.